Environment & Science

With Mars landing in sight, NASA scientists try to keep calm

An artist's concept of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft approaching Mars.
An artist's concept of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft approaching Mars.
An artist's concept of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft approaching Mars.
This is an artist's concept of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft during its cruise phase between launch and final approach to Mars.
An artist's concept of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft approaching Mars.
A model of Curiosity, NASA's most advanced mobile robotic laboratory, which will examine one of the most intriguing areas on Mars, is seen prior to a news briefing, Thursday, Nov. 10, 2011, at NASA Headquarters in Washington D.C.
NASA/Paul E. Alers

KPCC reporters have been talking to Southland scientists and engineers and counting down the days until NASA's most ambitious rover yet — Curiosity — prepares to land on the Martian surface. Follow the series online.

With less than two days until the Curiosity rover lands on Mars, the scientists and engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory are playing a waiting game.

“I just have to keep reminding myself to keep breathing,” said Steve Sell. He’s part of the team tasked with landing the machine on the Martian surface.

The procedure is automated so there’s not much anyone can do besides take deep breaths and wait for 10:31 pm Sunday, when the rover is scheduled to send its first messages back to Earth.

So far, things look good, said Ashwin Vasavada. He’s been monitoring the weather at Gale Crater, the site where Curiosity is looking to land. Vasavada said two days ago there was a dust storm heading that way, but it’s since dissipated.

“Mars appears to cooperating very nicely with us and we expect good weather for landing Sunday night,” said Vasavada.

A fan of rock music, Mars Exploration Program director Doug McCuistion quoted a Tom Petty song to sum up his feelings on the impending landing: “We’re learning to fly but we don’t have wings… getting down is the hardest thing.”

NASA has landed rovers on Mars before, but never one of Curiosity’s size and complexity.

The six-wheeled rover carries a science lab, weighs one ton and is the size of a car. That’s why NASA can’t rely on the large airbags it used in the past to bring the craft safely onto the Martian surface. This time around, the space agency will use a sky crane and jet packs to slow Curiosity’s speed from 13,000 miles an hour to zero during its seven-minute descent.

While the Curiosity scientists hope this never-before-used system works, they are all too aware that the Red Planet has not been kind to past missions. Over the 50 years that NASA and other space agencies have been trying to send spacecraft to Mars, two-thirds of the missions have ended in failure: the spacecraft goes silent or sails off into the Great Beyond — or crashes.

Still, NASA’s test runs have had a very high success rate -- “above 99 percent,” says Miguel San Martin, the Guidance, Navigation and Control chief engineer. “In other missions, like Spirit and Opportunity, we were getting the low 90s.”

Curiosity is scheduled to land in Gale Crater, an area nearly 100 miles across that scientists believe is a good place for the rover to carry out its mission of searching for signs of life. If all goes well, Curiosity will look for organic molecules in the crater, which has many layers of sediment.

The layers are more than three miles thick, which is more than in the Grand Canyon, says deputy project scientist Joy Crisp. Curiosity will drill into the layers at different heights, to learn about Mars’ various past environments. The rover will also fire a laser at rocks or soil, turning them into a plasma. “We look at that with spectrometers, and it tells us the chemistry…of what we’re looking at,” explains Crisp.

Curiosity’s work will also include searching for “habitable environments,” says lead project scientist John Grotzinger. That means exploring for sources of water that microorganisms could live in, a source of energy that those organisms could use for their metabolism, and carbon, “because carbon is the basic building block for all life as we know it,” he notes.

The stakes are always high when venturing into space; this time around, the team behind the $2.5 billion Curiosity mission may feel even more pressure than usual, as President Obama has already proposed that Congress cut its spending on NASA’s planetary science budget by twenty percent. That would force the cancellation of Mars missions planned for 2016 and 2018.